The Candidate: Jeremy Corbyn's Improbable Path to Power
by Alex Nunns (@alexnunns) on March 16, 2018



In an exclusive extract from the new edition of The Candidate: Jeremy Corbyn’s Improbable Path to Power, Alex Nunns explains how the movement behind Corbyn came about.1


It was the movement that brought the magic to the Corbyn campaign. Although a process was already underway within the Labour membership, what gave the Corbyn phenomenon its distinctive character was the participation of people from outside the party. It was the sense that Jeremy Corbyn was at the head of a broad movement that made his leadership bid so extraordinary. The excitement; the dynamism; the heady, disorienting feeling of the impossible becoming possible—these were the trappings of movement politics.2

There are two sides to the tale of how this dimension of Corbyn’s support came about. The first describes a conscious effort by the campaign to reach out to the various causes of the left. The second concerns a process that ran in the opposite direction: the anti-austerity movement was already searching for a vehicle through which it could advance its aims, and found it in Corbyn’s candidacy.

There is a historical dimension to the first side of the tale, which explains why it was necessary for the campaign to appeal to existing movements. Over the decades the left had become stratified into myriad separate causes. In the 1960s, 70s and 80s there was a flowering of new movements, such as anti-racism and rejuvenated feminism. These often had an uneasy relationship with the Labour Movement.3 As the Labour Party then became ever-more remote, and with political pluralism on the rise, many seeking to change society came to see their best chance as being through non-party, single-issue campaigns.

The Corbyn candidacy gave this fragmented left the chance to come back together. But it was not obvious that it would do so. As Young Labour national committee member Max Shanly admits, “A lot of these people have grown up despising the Labour Party.” The journalist Owen Jones remembers addressing People’s Assembly meetings around the country in the Miliband years: “If I’d stood up and said, ‘And that is why you must join the Labour Party because the only way we’re going to build a left movement in this country that has any chance of taking power is through the Labour leadership,’ there’s no question I would have been heckled vociferously and aggressively.”

The big change in 2015 was that the bar of commitment for potential voters had been dramatically lowered by the registered supporters scheme. Suddenly non-members could have a say over Labour’s next leader for £3. The party viewed the leadership election as a recruitment opportunity—the NEC deliberately set the price low and allowed plenty of time for people to sign up. For the tens of thousands who chose to join as full members instead, no retrospective ‘freeze date’ was imposed to prevent them voting.4

Few thought registered supporters would benefit the left. As a brainchild of the Blairites, the scheme was intended to diminish the influence of activists and trade unionists and cement Labour in the fabled centre ground. “Because they were so convinced I suppose I was quite convinced that it wasn’t going to work in our favour,” says the MP Cat Smith. Some, though, were eyeing up the opportunities. “One of the reasons why I was so keen to have a candidate was I actually did think that, given that we’d agreed the £3, we would do much better than all the people on the right anticipated,” says Jon Lansman.5

The consensus in Team Corbyn is that the registered supporter system turned their campaign outwards, making the recruitment of fresh blood central to the strategy (partly, initially, due to misplaced pessimism about Corbyn’s chances with full members). The first opportunity to test the approach was at the massive People’s Assembly ‘End Austerity Now’ demonstration on 20 June. The fledgling campaign rushed out a leaflet drafted by Simon Fletcher and Andrew Fisher. The simple wording had one goal—to recruit:

Jeremy Corbyn For Labour Leader
Together we can end austerity
Register today to vote in the Labour leadership election:
jeremyforlabour.com/vote or use this form

“We gave out the best part of 20,000 of those leaflets,” says a member of the team. “I don’t know how many directly resulted in anyone joining… but it sparked the idea that this was actually something that was part of the mass movements. I remember saying to people there, ‘If everyone on this demo joins, he’ll win!’”

Although Corbyn chose not to plug his candidacy from the stage, other speakers did it for him. “Wouldn’t it be amazing if everybody on this march registered and voted for Jeremy Corbyn to be leader of the Labour Party?” asked Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the PCS union, who was not a party member at the time. “If tens of thousands of us pay our £3 and register maybe we can have an anti-austerity voice at the top of Labour.”6 As Serwotka spoke, down in the throng Lansman “passed bundles of leaflets in all directions and the crowd distributed them.” He had “never found it easier to distribute leaflets.”7

James Schneider was also leafleting. “I had two people yell ‘Labour are awful,’” he remembers. “And a nice Welsh man heard them and said, ‘No, not Jeremy Corbyn, he’s brilliant, he’s been fighting for people his whole life.’ And they were like, ‘No, no, he’s Labour, he must be terrible.’ And he said, ‘No, you don’t understand, read about him, he’s brilliant.’”

There was an obvious explanation for the instant enthusiasm for Corbyn. Along with Caroline Lucas and John McDonnell, he was one of a tiny handful of MPs who commanded near-universal respect among grassroots campaigners. According to McDonnell, “No one [else] in the Parliamentary Labour Party had any time for any of the social movements whatsoever and were embarrassed to be… associated with them at all.”8 Corbyn, in contrast, had addressed so many rallies and meetings over the years on such a range of causes that he could count on a bedrock of support from the off. McDonnell remembers: “Jeremy was touring round the country and he was saying, ‘Oh I met so-and-so, we met him 10 years ago when we were involved in that occupation.’ Or, ‘We did the Chile campaign together.’ That sort of thing.” Corbyn and McDonnell had even helped set up many campaigns—“One of my primary roles in political life [was] booking rooms at the House of Commons for all these different organisations,” McDonnell jokes. As soon as Corbyn needed the reciprocal backing of campaigners, their attitude, McDonnell speculates, was: “These people are talking our politics, they’ve worked alongside us, we need to support them.”

Corbyn’s level of commitment was impossible to contrive. It stemmed from his fundamental political belief that, despite being an MP, parliament was not at the centre of the world. “Politics isn’t really about, as interesting as it is, the arithmetic in Holyrood, in Westminster, Cardiff or anywhere else,” Corbyn has said. “It’s actually about what people think and do outside. Political change actually comes from the democratic base of our society.”9

In the weeks following the People’s Assembly demonstration Team Corbyn mobilised for more rallies and events—including several in support of Greece, then at the climax of its confrontation with the European Union.10 On 27 June, at London’s Pride Parade, Marshajane Thompson led volunteers signing up supporters at a “Corbyn and Proud” stall—a perfect illustration of Corbyn being repaid for years of tireless advocacy. Corbyn’s commitment to LGBT+ rights stretched back to when it was a deeply unpopular cause. As a councillor in Haringey before becoming an MP he led the defence of a gay community centre attacked by the National Front.11 In parliament from 1983 he voted for virtually every piece of equalities legislation going. He was the only Labour MP to defy the whip to support a Liberal Democrat amendment to the Human Rights Bill in 1998 to outlaw discrimination based on sexuality—12 years before the Equality Act was passed.12

Now, as he marched through London behind a “Jeremy Corbyn for Labour Leader” banner, followed by a man with an “I heart Jeremy Corbyn” placard, the crowds of people watching from the side of the street started spontaneously chanting “Jeremy.”

“They’re chanting my name!” Corbyn said to Thompson, with what she describes as a “shell-shocked” look on his face. All along the route the chants kept breaking out. In Trafalgar Square, as Corbyn made his way to the platform to speak, he was mobbed.13 According to Thompson the day felt “just surreal… It’s one of those moments where you think ‘This is something different.’”

Corbyn’s social media team was also recruiting from the broad left. “We didn’t realise the impact of the Collins Review when we started,” recalls Ben Sellers. “But then it dawned on us that what we needed to do was win over the supporters and face outwards. We talked about the different groups that Jeremy was incredibly popular with and the stuff that he’d done in the past.”

Separately, one volunteer took it upon himself to approach various activist organisations. The effort culminated in a letter published in the New Statesman on 29 July signed by an assortment of 25 campaigns and prominent individuals. “As grassroots campaigners and activists working for social change from outside Westminster, we recognise the fundamentally flawed and stagnant state of parliamentary politics in this country,” the letter began.

However, it is foolish to suggest that it doesn’t make any difference who is in government or who is the leader of the main political parties… Whether he’s been leading anti-war marches, standing up for the rights of disabled people or calling for radical solutions to the housing crisis, Jeremy has always been on the side of social movements. We know a lot of people are sceptical about the Labour Party, for many very legitimate reasons. We urge people, despite those concerns, to back a true campaigner leading the opposition.14

Other activist organisations, including the Palestine Solidarity Campaign of which Corbyn was a patron, as well as NGOs and charities, were unable to formally back him due to being non-party political. “It’s definitely not the case that any of the big organisations gave their email list to Jeremy or anything like that,” says a member of the Corbyn camp. “Some took different views to others in terms of how far they were willing to push it and recommend people join.” Pushing it further than most was the Stop the War Coalition, which announced its support for Corbyn—who was its chair—on 16 June and promoted a link to the £3 sign-up page.15

It was on international and human rights causes such as peace, nuclear disarmament, migrant rights and anti-racism that Corbyn’s work was best known and where support was most fulsome. A considerable chunk of his base was made up of people for whom the Iraq War was the seminal issue of their lives. But he enjoyed goodwill from an incredibly wide spectrum of activists—from environmentalists to mental health campaigners and from the respectable end of activism to the more radical, direct action fraternity. Corbyn’s candidacy gave them all a single battle to win.

In these early weeks the Corbyn campaign was appealing to activists, rather than the broader array of progressives it would later attract. “The number of people who actually properly knew the full range of Jeremy’s politics [was] probably quite small,” says a campaign team source. “We’re talking maybe 10,000 people.” But these activists formed a core of highly experienced campaigners, vocal on social media, keyed into left networks, and not shy about evangelising. They could “vouch for Jeremy being the real thing, not just another Labour politician tacking leftwards,” the campaign insider says. It was an indispensible platform on which to build the “maximal broad left” coalition that would emerge by August 2015.


The Candidate: Jeremy Corbyn’s Improbable Path to Power is now available in a new edition, including extensive coverage of the 2017 election. To get 20% off the cover price use the discount code “New Socialist” at check out on the OR Books website.


  1. Endnotes are from http://www.orbooks.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/CandidateReferences.pdf

  2. The definition of a “movement” in this context is, like the phenomenon itself, somewhat fuzzy. At the general level it is simple enough: a movement is a coming together of people for the purpose of changing some aspect of the political or social status quo. It is the attempt to move from one situation to another that lends it the name, and a successful movement grows through this motion, like a snowball rolling down a hill. But beyond that the term is applied in a variety of ways. It is often used interchangeably with the name of an organisation, such as the Stop the War Coalition; or to describe a great cause, such as Palestinian rights; or to refer to a campaign for a specific policy, such as for the living wage; or in relation to the struggle of a particular group against discrimination, such as the LGBT+ community. On the left there is a tendency to regard any non-party political group campaigning for progressive change—irrespective of the scale of support for its message—as a “social movement.” Some of those who were involved in the Corbyn campaign refer casually to “the movements” as shorthand for the non-Labour activists of the left who swung behind their candidate, although in reality there were no dividing walls—many members of the party were themselves involved in various movements. It is also the case that, although there is a plethora of different causes and campaigns, they are propelled and supported by largely the same pool of leftish people—the environmental movement, for example, contains activists who are just as involved in the tax justice movement. 

  3. In the mid-1980s a conscious attempt was made to fuse at least the Bennite Labour left and the new movements through a series of gatherings known as the Chesterfield Socialist Conferences. The ethos of these events lives on in the personal politics of many of the participants, including Corbyn. “Jeremy is just one of a modest band of Labour MPs… who don’t ask to see your party card before joining struggles and debates beyond the walls of Westminster,” the feminist socialist author Hilary Wainwright, who was heavily involved in the Chesterfield conferences, has written. Hilary Wainwright, ‘My support for Jeremy Corbyn is about much more than “reclaiming Labour,”’ Red Pepper, July 2015, https://archive.is/7VP5k. For a more critical take on the Chesterfield Socialist Conferences see Alan Simpson’s comments in Alex Nunns, ‘What became of the Labour left?’ Red Pepper, September 2007, https://archive.is/LD5hu

  4. This was in contrast to the 2016 contest when the opposite impulse resulted in only members of more than six months’ standing being allowed to vote. 

  5. Lansman expected to recruit 50,000 registered supporters. In the end, 88,449 registered supporters voted for Corbyn; the other three candidates combined won the votes of just 17,149. 

  6. ‘Mark Serwotka – End Austerity Now – June 20th 2015,’ Diwonisojo channel, YouTube, 21 June 2015, https://youtu.be/vplwaN-0g_o

  7. Jon Lansman, ‘End austerity now says Jeremy Corbyn,’ Left Futures, 21 June 2015, https://archive.is/l0shC

  8. Corbyn’s leadership rivals all turned down the opportunity to address the People’s Assembly demonstration. Matthew Weaver, ‘People’s Assembly pans Burnham, Cooper and Kendall for “rally noshow,”’ Guardian, 16 June 2015, https://archive.is/DIYxc

  9. Severin Carrell, ‘Corbyn blames Scotland electoral defeat on weak austerity and Trident stances,’ Guardian, 13 August 2015, https://archive.is/XCGf6

  10. There was a Greece Solidarity Campaign rally in Trafalgar Square on 23 June 2015, another on 29 June, and a rally on 6 July. ‘Break the chains of Greece’s debt! Rally Trafalgar Square Tuesday 23rd June 6.30,’ Greece Solidarity, 22 June 2015, https://archive.is/aIrdM. ‘Solidarity with Greece, Mon 29 June, Trafalgar Square,’ Greece Solidarity Campaign, 29 June 2015, https://archive.is/14p3S. ‘Celebrate Greece’s victory!’ Greece Solidarity Campaign, 5 July 2015, https://archive.is/6e36E

  11. Joe Williams, ‘Jeremy Corbyn threatens economic “consequences” for anti-gay countries,’ Pink News, 4 August 2015, https://archive.is/bJO61

  12. Nick Duffy, ‘Left-wing MP Jeremy Corbyn enters Labour leadership race,’ Pink News, 3 June 2015, https://archive.is/xU2pW

  13. Rosa Prince, Comrade Corbyn: A Very Unlikely Coup (Biteback Publishing, 2016), ch. 17, pp. 326-327 (ebook version, EPUB/iPad). 

  14. The list of signatories included representatives from UK Uncut, Disabled People Against The Cuts, Global Women’s Strike, Black Activists Rising Against Cuts, Greece Solidarity Campaign, Fuel Poverty Action, Southall Black Sisters, National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts and many others. Stephen Bush, ‘25 campaign groups and activists back Jeremy Corbyn for Labour leader,’ New Statesman, 29 July 2015, https://archive.is/dtP96

  15. Lindsey German, ‘Why Stop the War supports Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign to be Labour Party leader,’ Stop the War Coalition, 16 June 2015, https://archive.is/gXklf. Later, in August, Stop the War helped organise the most famous rally of the campaign at the Camden Centre in London. Sam Coates, ‘Crowd salute their hard-left superstar,’ Times, 4 August 2015, https://archive.is/0MylI 


author

Alex Nunns (@alexnunns)

Alex Nunns is the author of The Candidate: Jeremy Corbyn’s Improbable Path to Power.

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